This week in "What Are We Doing Here?", a Christian practice that goes by many names: the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Altar, or Holy Communion. On the night of his arrest, Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples and left them a new act to observe until his return:
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:14-21)
Versions of this event circulated, with variations, before the Gospel was written down (Luke's version is probably not the oldest or most "accurate," it's just the one I chose to quote). Paul heard a slightly different version:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
A very early Christian text called the Didache ("Teaching" or "Instruction"), from roughly the same period as the New Testament texts, includes version still more different:
1And concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus: The Eucharist 2First concerning the Cup, "We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy child; to thee be glory for ever." The Cup 3And concerning the broken Bread: "We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. 4As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever." 5But let none eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptised in the Lord's Name. For concerning this also did the Lord say, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs."
So looking at the different texts it's hard to know what the "original" version of the Eucharist was. What we know from this diversity, however, is that a meal of thanksgiving and remembrance was part of Christian worship from the very beginning. And this makes sense because meals were an important part of Jesus' ministry. Jesus feeds multitudes and sits with friends; around the table he may be the guest of honor or he may be engaged in theological disputation. Meals were at the heart of the life of the church even before Christ's death and resurrection gave those gatherings a new meaning: a Messianic feast anticipating his return and in which his body and blood would be present to us by his promise under the bread and wine.
This is such an intimate and flexible ritual action that it can sustain, and has sustained, all kinds of practices and interpretations. Christians argue over it relentlessly. In the 16th century, some theological writers started having a problem: if, as John's Gospel suggests, "God is Spirit" and "the flesh accomplishes nothing," how can Christ be really present in the Eucharist? This is a question raised by our Gospel passage for Sunday:
[Jesus said to Nicodemus:] What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
To understand this passage, it's important to know that the same Greek word is translated here as both "wind" and "Spirit" (it also means "breath"). This seems to suggest that Spirit/wind/breath is a force that is totally separate from "flesh/body." It is tempting to create a strictly "spiritual" interpretation of Christianity that makes the physical body somehow irrelevant or disposable.
But then what do we do about all those meals in the Gospels? Why is a meal the central act of the early Church? Is the Sacrament we share today just an empty remembrance of an absent Christ? And if that's so, why would Jesus command us to keep this ritual until his return?
Something else is going on when we gather around the altar--something big and mysterious and sacred that transforms our relationship not just with God but with each other, and not just "spiritually" or in our minds but in our bodies too. Hear more on Sunday!
God's Work. Our hands.